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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving & Civil Religion

Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, not exactly. It does seem to rest somewhere between Independence Day and Good Friday, though. I assume school children still learn about Pilgrims coming to the America to find religious freedom. Thankfulness is featured prominently in our religions.

Over at God's Politics you can read about some discomfort those folks have with the holiday as a result this uncomfortable relationship. Just the other day, I was at a deposition and sort of winced when the reporter asked the man being deposed if he swore to tell the truth "so help [him] God." My dad reports similar peculiarity when he finishes twenty to thirty minutes of talking about man not putting asunder what has been joined by God, only to conclude with "by the power vested in me by the state of Indiana."

Consider the following evidence of discomfort with the state religion: the First Amendment; Jesus outsmarts the Pharisees by noting that what is Caesar's and what is God's are different; Jesus declares his kingdom to be different from Rome's; and even the first Kingdom authorized by God only received his approval begrudgingly.

Are the words "In God We Trust" on our money, swearing under penalty of God's wrath harmless, and sealing our sacred unions with imprimatur of the state harmless? Who should be more bothered by these meaningless religious references, atheists or devotees?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sermon on the Mount, Nineth

The next piece of advice Jesus offer those listening to the sermon on the mount is this, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." He breaks the advice down into three parts. First, give to the needy secretly. Second, pray modestly and simply. Finally, when you fast, don't make it obvious that you are fasting. Matthew 6:1-18.

I think it is interesting how thoroughly this section of the sermon has been adopted into modern religious practice in America. We are definitely modest about talking about giving and embarrassed if someone makes to big of a deal about his or her faith.

Why has this advice so taken hold? Is it because it can in fact give cover for not giving very much money to charity, not helping the needy, and not practicing our religious disciplines?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Saving Lives with the Death Penalty

Starting with the least important thing first, I happen to believe there are circumstances in which the death penalty is justified. However, I believe the cost of sufficient safeguards to ensure the number of wrongful executions is acceptably small is too large to be practical. Thus, I am opposed to the practice of capital punishment in the United States in 2007.

Retribution is not the only justification for capital punishment. Another justification is deterrence. And within the context of deterrence, we are comparing capital punishment to life imprisonment. Many folks opposed to the death penalty are fond of noting that capital punishment does not deter murders because states with capital punishment do not have lower murder rates. (I have not independently verified that, btw.)

Well, it appears many studies in recent years show that capital punishment does indeed have a deterrent affect. As reported in the New York Times, full story, "According to roughly a dozen recent studies, executions save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented." It appears that the studies looked at the murder rate in counties where there was an execution. Generally the murder rate in those counties fell. So, the study focused on actual executions rather than the deterrent of a policy of capital punishment.

There are potential problems with the study. First Texas has a disproportionate impact. Texas has killed 405 killers since 1976, compared to 98 by the next most deadly state, Virginia. [Source.] The death penalty has really picked up in recent years in Texas, and during the same period the number of murders has dropped. See graphic which I put together from these sources [1], [2]. Second, the number of executions are so small, that it is difficult to establish causation.

I don't know, I'm not entirely convinced. The mechanism is a stumbling block for me. I just can't see how a murderer would be informed enough, or view the very rarely exercised punishment of executions, or be thoughtful enough at the moment he considers whether to murder a person that capital punishment would have any impact. But, I think the studies are interesting. I'm a believer in scientific methodology.

So, the question is: If for every person the state executes for murder there are 18 murders that are not committed, is capital punishment moral? Put another way, if by eliminating capital punishment we cause the deaths of 18 innocents for every person who would have been executed, is it immoral to eliminate capital punishment?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Once removed immigration laws

At the God's Politics Blog, Jim Wallis writes that
[t]he best example [of what he calls a new Fugitive Slave Law] is the law recently passed in Oklahoma which makes it a "felony for U.S. citizens to knowingly provide shelter, transportation, or employment to illegal immigrants." If a person comes to the door of a church-run homeless shelter, saying he is illegal and needs a place to sleep, it is a felony to offer him a bed. And churches in Oklahoma across the board have spoken against this new law.
Full post here.

In the comments, the right wing comments call foul because regulating immigration is moral while owning a human being is not. That is true, and I think it makes a difference. Wallis, however, is focusing on preventing people from helping each other. Even if regulating immigration is necessary, regulating it by preventing citizens from helping dark skinned people is immoral, just as it was immoral under the Fugitive Slave Act.

These once removed laws pose more problems for me than the immigration policy established by the federal government. I see federal immigration policy as almost entirely an economic issue. (Asylum is important, but it isn't what our immigration policy is about.) And as with other economic policies, they certainly could be evil, but I do not think we are closed to making it so. (That wasn't always true. Prohibiting the immigration of Chinese women, and explicitly prohibiting Chinese people from naturalization was immoral.)

Once we move away from direct regulation, we start to run into problems for me. I think each step has to be narrowly tailored to ensure that it does not deprive a person of more protection than necessary, and to make sure it absolutely minimizes the chances that the law will be applied against someone who just happens to be non-Anglo.

Assume it would break the law to transport a person to the hospital if that person tells you he illegally entered the United States. If a persons makes such a confession, but needs medical attention is it moral to break that law? Is that a different question than a similar one regarding harboring a fugitive slave?